Welcome to my latest newsletter, in which you can read about some of the work I’ve been doing over the past month. As always, please do get in touch if you have any comments, or any issues that my team and I might be able to help you with.
Brexit border chaos
Following the end of the transition period and the last-minute Brexit deal, many businesses are now struggling with bureaucracy and delays at our borders. Where we were once able to trade freely as part of the Single Market, businesses are now having to contend with ‘non-tariff barriers’ – meaning lots of extra paperwork, and extra costs.
One industry that is facing particular uncertainty is the music industry. It was recently revealed that the Government had rejected an offer of visa-free touring for UK musicians across the European Union during negotiations and a petition on this issue has now gained over 280,000 signatures. I’m hoping to speak in the Petitions Committee debate on this on Monday, and will also be speaking at a rally (online, of course!) in the morning. The sector has been so badly hit by Covid, and everyone is looking forward to a summer where they can once again start attending live events – but if musicians have to get visas, and carnets for their equipment, and face extra hurdles at every border they cross, it’s going to be very difficult for them to make a living by touring Europe, unless we can negotiate exemptions.
A related issue that has received less attention is the new cabotage rules for UK hauliers, which will limit them to 3 stops across the whole European Union. While this will be manageable for most hauliers, who just drop one consignment goods off and then pick up another load to return home with, it will be devastating for the drivers of concert trucks, who can sometimes spend entire months on the road, going from one destination to another, and yet another barrier to music tours. I have written to the Government about this issue calling for a cultural exemption to these rules, as covered by PoliticsHome here. I have also raised the issue in Parliament.
Bristol Snubbed – New Office of Environment Protection WON’T be located in Bristol
I recently spoke in the Report Stage of the Environment Bill, raising my concerns about repeated delays to the Bill and supporting amendments that would have strengthened targets on air pollution, placed firm responsibilities on Ministers to act in line with our environmental obligations, maintained standards on chemicals and more.
I also supported a Labour amendment that would have forced Ministers to seek Parliamentary scrutiny before approving the use of harmful pesticides. This was following the Government’s decision to allow the emergency use of bee-killing neonicotinoids without prior scrutiny by Parliament – which is a decision I strongly oppose.
Finally, I raised the issue of the location of the new Office of Environmental Protection. We were frequently promised that it would be located in Bristol but – without any prior warning – the Government has now announced it will in fact be based in Worcester. This is an unacceptable breach of trust, that will cost Bristol 120 jobs, and I have written to the Minister responsible to demand answers. Government forced to U-turn on Workers’ Rights attack
Following reports that the Government intended to rip up existing employment rights with a review led by Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, I voted in favour of Labour’s Opposition Day Debate motion to protect holiday pay entitlements and the right to work no more than a 48-hour week, and to put legislation in place which would outlaw fire and rehire tactics.
The vote wasn’t binding, but sent a symbolic message to a Government which has consistently prioritised the interests of big business over workers’ wellbeing. After Labour’s efforts and mounting public pressure I was delighted to see the Government cancel its review, showing what an effective Opposition can achieve! We desperately need to strengthen workers’ rights, not undermine and erode them as this Government had planned.
Joined calls for end to Public Sector Pay Freeze
Labour has been campaigning since November for an end to the Chancellor’s public sector pay freeze (excluding those in the NHS). I recently highlighted research via Facebook which suggests that every key worker earning over £18,000 in England will be hit with a real-terms pay cut this year, once inflation is taken into account. This would affect 2.6 Million (47% of public sector workers) including 7,900 teachers, police officers or social workers in Bristol East. I have since written to the Treasury to demand this policy be overturned. You can sign Labour’s petition on the issue here.
I was also pleased to take part in the PCS Union’s national day of action, speaking at an online rally in support of its Fair Pay campaign. There are far too many public sector workers whose work is undervalued, and often unacknowledged, for example, those working in local benefits offices and for other Government agencies. It’s been a tough year for them, with rising workloads and often having to deal with people who are stressed and unhappy; they deserve a pay rise too.
Pathetic Universal Credit Letter from the DWP
I recently sent a letter to the Department for Work and Pensions asking for an extension to the £20 Universal Credit (UC) uplift past March, and for those on legacy benefits to be given the same £20 increase as UC recipients. I received a terrible response which completely failed to grasp the significance of the issue; you can read the Minister’s letter, for what it’s worth, in full here.
There are 7742 families receiving Universal Credit in Bristol East, and many
constituents have written to me over the last few weeks expressing just how vital the uplift had been, so for the Government to dismiss them out of hand is incredibly disappointing. The pandemic has laid bare the inadequacies of the benefits system, and I’ll keep doing all I can to stand up for the people and families who need our support during this crisis.
Labour also used one of its recent Opposition Day debates on this topic, and will keep up the pressure in Parliament.
EU Settlement scheme – deadline looming!
I joined calls earlier this month for the Government to lift the current deadline for applying to stay in the UK under the EU Settlement Scheme. Many EU citizens are unaware of the cut-off date for applying, and face being criminalised for working and living in the UK if they don’t register before the end of June 2021. To allow enough time for registration the Government should extend or lift the deadline but until then it is important that everyone this applies to is made aware of what is currently the deadline. Applications can be made here.
Trade Bill – say no to genocide!
The Trade Bill was back in the Commons last month, giving MPs the opportunity to vote on several vital amendments relating to parliamentary scrutiny, food standards and High Court powers in cases of genocide. I was bitterly disappointed to see each amendment voted down by Tory MP’s, especially given how many constituents contacted me expressing support. We are in what is colloquially referred to in Parliament as the “ping pong” stage of the Bill, which means it’s going back and forth between the Commons and the Lords – and it seems the Lords are sticking to their guns, and will be sending, inter alia, another amendment on genocide back to the Commons soon.
A lack of scrutiny removes accountability and reduces the possibility of cross sector cooperation. The right to debate and approve future trade agreements shouldn’t be purely a matter of discretion, but one of law. You can read my full speech in the House of Commons debate here. I also touched on how this represents a missed opportunity to bring other countries up to our welfare and environmental standards. If we import food or finance its production in other countries then we are complicit in their actions, such as with President Bolsonaro’s illegal deforestation measures in Brazil.
At the time of writing, Bristol’s infection rate has fallen slightly, putting us below the case rate for England as a whole. There have been worrying reports of a new mutation of the Kent variant being identified in Bristol, but the Department of Health is in close contact with local agencies about this.
I know that lockdown is challenging, but we must keep persevering in line with restrictions to keep our families and communities safe. Please do get in touch if I can help with any problems you’re facing during the Covid-19 pandemic, and remember that the We Are Bristol Helpline can help with emergency access to food and medicine – call 0800 694 0184 for more information (8.30am-5pm Mon-Fri, 10am-2pm Sat-Sun).
Although hospitals and healthcare services are under intense pressure, Bristol’s vaccination programme is going well and proceeding at pace. The centre at Ashton Gate has provided a major boost to local capacity, and we’re on-track to vaccinate the four main priority groups in coming weeks. If you are yet to be offered an appointment, please be patient – you’ll be contacted when it’s your turn.
I know lots of you have questions about the Covid-19 vaccine, so I wanted to mention the local Clinical Commissioning Group’s next free information event, during which a panel will answer common questions and talk about how vaccines work. You can sign up for tickets here. Age UK have also created an FAQ on the vaccine which you can read here.
LGBT History Month & HIV Testing
As part of LGBT History Month, my colleague Stephen Doughty recently wrote an excellent piece on Channel 4’s programme It’s a Sin, reflecting on what has and hasn’t changed since the early days of the HIV/AIDS crisis.
With continued efforts, we could end the HIV epidemic by 2030. Thankfully, HIV isn’t the death sentence it used to be – those diagnosed early have a normal life expectancy, those on treatment can’t pass it on, and we have a HIV prevention drug, PrEP, to help people stay negative.
As well as signing Labour up to the 2030 goal, Keir Starmer has pledged to try and make us the first country to meet it, aided by a HIV Commission that we would resource with help from leading organisations like the Terrence Higgins Trust and the National AIDS Trust.
I recently took an HIV test myself as part of Terrence Higgins Trust and It Starts with Me’s campaign for HIV Testing Week, and I can attest that it was a quick, easy, and painless process. You can find out more about testing and see if you’re eligible for a test here: https://www.startswithme.org.uk/.
Social Care Workforce
I’ve recently written two letters to the Department for Health and Social Care to ask that those working in social care get a decent pay rise, and that the Government takes urgent action to protect the social care workforce. It’s vital that the Government increases frontline testing to keep staff and care home residents safe.
Care workers and other staff at care homes have been on the frontline of this pandemic from the start. As well as warm words and the clap for carers, it’s vital that their efforts are recognised with a decent living wage that allows them to be financially secure.
Equally, while the UK’s Covid-19 vaccines delivery plan has confirmed that that those living in residential care homes for older adults and their carers are in the highest priority group (in addition to health and social care workers), we have no sense of when working age disabled adults living in care homes will be vaccinated. To date, communications regarding the vaccination of those in care homes has been exclusively in relation to those in care homes for older people.
While it’s important, of course, to protect older care home residents, who are amongst the most vulnerable, I also strongly believe that working age disabled adults in care homes and their relatives deserve clarity on when they will be inoculated. I’ll keep pressing the Government to provide a clear timescale and route map for comprehensive vaccine delivery for working aged disabled adults living in residential care settings.
Support for children with undiagnosed support needs
Even before Covid-19, children with support needs often faced long waits before being issued an Education and Healthcare Plan (EHCP), which entitles them to additional support. I raised this with the Schools Minister in Parliament and urged him to ensure children could still get assessed now, even if they are not attending school.
Supported housing – benefit rules and looked after children being left in unsafe accommodation
As readers of previous newsletters will know, I am campaigning to improve standards in Supported Housing and have introduced a Bill to regulate all supported housing settings. One of the driving reasons behind poor quality accommodation is because there are no minimum standards of care, so poor providers can get away with offering little or no support. I raised this with DWP Ministers and urged him to tighten the rules.
Similarly, thousands of looked after children are being left in unregulated accommodation settings, often without support, and some have then been exploited by criminal gangs. The Government is considering introducing a ban placing children in unregulated accommodation but only for under 16s – which would only affect 90 of the 10,000+ children in these settings. I raised this in Parliament, asking why this was ok if it leads to 16 and 17-year-olds being put at risk.
May 2021 elections
The Government is maintaining that local elections scheduled for May 2021 will still go ahead – many of these elections were postponed in 2020. In Bristol there will now be elections for all councillors, the Bristol mayor, the West of England Mayor and the Police and Crime Commissioner. This would be confusing at the best of times, and I asked the Minister how he would make sure that we get the right advice to voters, especially those who might find it more difficult to engage e.g. if they have visual impairments.
If you’d like to sign up for a postal vote before the local elections, so that you don’t have to go to a polling station on the day, you can do so here.
Please do get in touch!
My work continues on a range of other issues too, which you can read about if you follow me on social media, or in future newsletters. Do please, as always, get in touch if you have any comments or questions, or if you need help from me and my team. You can email me at email@example.com or call 0117 939 9901.